Monday, 19 October 2009

The Roar of Battle

What is the future anterior? Here is Scurati on Foucault’s ‘distant roar of battle’ from which his novel takes its name:

‘One doesn’t rage against the darkness but within it. The struggle is obscure and the person struggling lacks self knowledge and knowledge, above all, of the enemy… In the moment in which he fights man is sleeping. He actually lives the whole of his waking existence apparently at peace whilst in the heavy sleep that roots itself in him there continues always, echoing in the distance, the roar of battle.’
(Antonio Scurati: Il rumore sordo della battaglia)

Here is Veronesi on much the same sort of thing:

‘Huge things happen in the world, terrible things, marvellous things, so close at hand that they mark our lives for ever. And yet, once they have passed, we become aware that they have merely brushed against us and we have to content ourselves with imagining them, as though, in fact, they hadn’t happened.'
(Sandro Veronesi: Gli sfiorati, my italics)

Now here is Scurati again, this time showing how technology intervenes between the past, the present and the future:

‘There remains the glimmer of an intelligence, ie mine, which isn’t entirely spent. An ironic intelligence which undergoes the fascination of reality only once this is frozen in some photographic image. A melancholy intelligence that’s seduced by the fascination of the present only once it appears in the form of a life anterior to this one. But in life as photographed this intelligence, having set off in search of the agony that only an unknown and unlived past can provide, ends up by flushing out the detail which renders vain any hope for a life to come and renders pointless any search.’
(Antonio Scurati: Il rumore sordo della battaglia)

As in this description of a photograph of an anti Czarist demonstration:

‘The photo shows a dense crowd all packed together. Clearly it’s been taken from a position that’s deliberately higher up but not too distant from its subject. Probably the camera had been positioned on the balcony from which those demonstrating were expecting to hear at any moment what Lenin had to say. The particularly flattened perspective means that what’s shown is almost just the faces, whilst the foreshortening of the distance means that these faces, conscious of being portrayed, are looking fixedly at the lens. A multitude of turn of the century faces striking a pose. Faces that place their trust in the immortality conferred by the photographic image, in its prophetic capacity to hypothecate the future [...] Countenances and ways of looking that are the opposite of our fin-de-siècle ways of looking.’
(Antonio Scurati: Il rumore sordo della battaglia)

And here finally is Antonelli Venditti on the ‘children of tomorrow’:

Don’t ask me too many questions
I wouldn’t know how to answer you
The veins run dry, and the memory’s stopped transmitting (x 6)

Father, what was this planet?
This was Earth
An open planet, always smiling (x 6)

This animal, Father, what is it?
This was a dog
And this, Father, what strange machine is this?
This was a man, a very strange machine, it never smiled (x 3)

And us, where are we going?
Towards the Universe
And the images they’ve sent me, tell me: are they dead now?
Yes, dead, a million years ago
And this is only a shadow
Man has gone, he’s given up making errors
He’s gone away, there’s only us (x 7)

We’re perfect, we’re perfect human beings
We never play with the sun, and never weep, we never weep. (x 2)

(Antonello Venditti: Figli del domani)

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Rector of St Chav's

Here is Archbishop Tutu commenting wryly upon Africa and the Church:

‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
(Steven Gish: Desmond Tutu: A Biography)

This sort of joke makes several thing explicit in a useful way. It’s clear, for example, that colonialism was really a form of theft, with the Church being fully complicit. And that the colonised for their part were naïve in allowing the swindle to happen. So there’s a critique here, arising out of indignation, that’s overt.

On the other hand, it’s equally clear that as an Anglican archbishop Tutu is part of the Church and its success is therefore his. So is he part of the problem? Although as an African he is a victim, what’s also strongly implied is that by stealing the land the colonising North may in fact have lost its soul whereas he and his compatriots are having their revenge: they have ‘colonised’ the Church. By wittily nesting the positive within the context of the negative Dr Tutu’s emotionally complex strategy allows the oppressed to become subjects again and thus (morally at least) to gain the upper hand.


And now here by contrast is Archbishop Rowan Williams making various interview points about the state of Britain’s finances. There has, apparently, been a bit of financial trouble up at St Chav’s. Several of the younger boys have lost their iPhones. The school tuck-shop, after a run in with what the school caretaker likes to call the school’s Collateralised Doughnut Obligations, has needed a sub from parents. In the meantime a number of pupils have made complaints that the Economics teacher keeps talking over their heads. They can’t understand a word of what he says. An air of unreality is hanging over St Chav’s…

Dr Williams dislikes unreality. What he wants is repentance good and strong:

‘There hasn’t been what I as a Christian would call repentance. We haven’t heard people say, “Well actually, you know, we got it wrong and the fundamental principle on which we worked was unreal, was empty. […] I’m talking about bankers but also about all of us. We should all, I think, look back and say, “Well we were hypnotised into that sense of unreality.”’
(Rowan Williams: Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman 15 September 2009))

Which is why there are now lines to be written. Why boys who lost their iPhones are writing, ‘I must look after my iPhone.’ Why boys who have taken iPhones are writing, ‘I must not steal people’s iPhones.’ Why Dr Williams himself is earnestly scribbling on the blackboard, ‘I must take playground duty much more seriously and look out for stolen iPhones.’ The school tuck-shop has given up CDOs. It now sells proper doughnuts filled with jam...

But alas the Economics master still seems to be in post. A horrid example of boffinry. An indefatigable presenter of unintelligible graphs who makes up strange equations and uses the school computer. In short, a nasty chap. This puts a damper on things. In the corridors boys keep finding their pockets empty and administering Chinese burns. Dr Williams has been getting quite upset. ‘There hasn’t been a feeling of closure about what happened last year,’ he declares at one point during Assembly. He detects ‘a quite strong sense of diffused resentment’ in and around the school. But fortunately he has a solution for this as well. We should all ignore the Economics master, who is nothing but a bully and a windbag, and start reading Keynes instead:

‘We felt intimidated by expertise [… Experts] convinced the rest of us because I think we’ve most of us grown up with the idea that economics is an exact science and that suggests that we haven’t actually read Keynes in the first place because Keynes’s stress on uncertainty as something utterly unavoidable in economic activity beyond a certain level, that again seems to have vanished.’
(Rowan Williams: Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman 15 September 2009))


The differences here are striking.

Firstly what Dr Williams appears to want is actually to shut down in the name of ‘closure’ the very sort of opposition (‘they’ versus ‘we’) which Dr Tutu seeks to redeem and then keep open. The key is positionality. Thus Dr Tutu’s joke is radically ambivalent. As the individual he is he straddles the division between two personal pronouns, between two separate actors. Each of the elements associating him with either ‘they’ or ‘we’ prompts an interpretation which disturbs interpretation of the other. But when, by contrast, Dr Williams refers to what ‘a Christian would call repentance’ he conflates four different things which differ morally as they do in terms of deixis: regret (‘What a pity about those crooked deals he made us enter into’), blame (‘What about those crooked deals you made us enter into’), contrition (‘I’m sorry about those crooked deals I made you enter into’) and forgiveness leading to closure (‘That’s OK’). He seems to find no moral inequivalence between, say, Bernard Madoff and one of Madoff’s clients. And, though he would hardly have meant it as such, by saying, in effect, ‘We’re all to blame and now I want the whole class to stay behind after school,’ he merely varies the thesis used by prejudiced judges down the ages that rapists’ victims were asking for it: ‘We girls should try to dress more discreetly.’

Secondly, whereas Dr Tutu’s ‘we’ is a pronoun which owns up (‘I am a member too’) what Dr Williams does is to manipulate to his own advantage the difference between the ‘we’ of individuation and the ‘we’ of collective belonging. Again positionality is the key. Whilst, for example, Dr Williams emphasises that ‘we’ are all collectively to blame, he nonetheless permits himself an individuating ‘we’ whenever it really matters. Thus when he declares that treating economics as science suggests that ‘we’ haven’t read Keynes (And where exactly is our essay on J M Keynes, Master Romer?’) he applies a stricture to others that he seems not to apply to himself. That’s dishonest.

Whereas Dr Tutu simplifies a complex history to bring out certain essentials, Dr Williams merely fudges. Thus he claims to want a closer relationship between financial products and the creation of socially desirable goods and services, which he terms ‘wealth as wellbeing’. But instead of addressing those who created dodgy products in the first place he blames economists, who are already one step removed.


There was, of course, an opportunity (ducked by Dr Williams) to consider things rather more fully. For a start, it simply isn’t the case that everyone in Britain had somehow been ‘hypnotised’ by the unrealities of an economics modelled on the sciences any more than Dr Tutu was literally present at the snatching away of land and handing out of bibles. Neither was a bargain freely entered into. Both were about fraud, and powerlessness, and loss. That would be one possible point of entry. But instead Dr Williams merely paraphrases Thatcher's reference to people who:

‘live by illusions, the illusion that you can spend money you haven't earned without eventually going bankrupt or falling into the hands of your creditors.’
(Margaret Thatcher: Speech to Conservative Party Conference, October 1978)

Whereas modernising capitalism captured past experience (the skills of the artisan) and absorbed them into mechanised production, postfordist capitalism seems to be capturing future experience (how the world may be interpreted and re-formed) partly through the mediations of ICT; partly through the substitution of personal knowledge by various kinds of expert system; partly through the privatisation of an intellectual commons as new sorts of property; partly through the privileging of rule based behaviours over individual good sense, and partly through the institution of immaterial labour, of an often precarious workforce of information providers and creators whose links with one another are increasingly virtual and transindividual and thus lack the intersubjectivity of communities, workplaces, what used to be called solidarity. This is the wider context in which the financial crisis appears to have begun. It’s one in which what Marx called general intellect, within which Virno includes ‘formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and language games’ is being steadily substituted by a technology which now (in)forms and creates us more and more rather than vice versa. And since ‘solidarity’ is now in pawn to multinationals, political elites, to the enactors of globalization, ‘we’ need to redeem it through a new sort of subjectivity; through constituting in ‘our’ behaviours a new social subject; through our anger, directed and direct.

So that would be another point of entry. To view the credit crunch not simplistically, as a single issue, but as a symptom of something wider, of which the crisis in Britain’s parliamentary system (MPs’ expense, distaste for the major parties) is another. To look towards the context and the cause. And with a different aim. Not to stop being ‘hypnotised’, supposedly, by money and/or clever economics but to attempt to recover ourselves: ‘Sikhalela izwe lethu (We cry for our land) / Elathathwa ngabamhlophe (That was taken by the white people’); we cry for that latest part of our humanity, of our subjectivity, that is being taken from us by another colonising process.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Articulating Despair

Thoreau and Tondelli


‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. […] A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.’
(Thoreau: Walden)

Thoreau’s view is of a truth that is covered over, masked with falsehood, and which (as with Frisch’s technology) we exploit without engaging with. He views it from above:

‘The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agriculture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten. There is actually no place in this village for a work of fine art, if any had come down to us, to stand, for our lives, our houses and streets, furnish no proper pedestal for it. There is not a nail to hang a picture on, nor a shelf to receive the bust of a hero or a saint. When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and honest though earthy foundation.’
(Thoreau: Walden)


‘Why do you live if you’re not happy?’
‘Everyone is constrained to create a fiction for themselves in order to carry on living. There are those who think about their families, those who think about work, or about money, or about sex. But they’re all illusions.’
(P V Tondelli: Rimini)

The important thing here is that Rimini is actually radically false, whether viewed by Bauer, the young journalist stationed there from outside, or from within, and even though the ‘real’ is thoroughly complicit with the false. Hence this about a homosexual relationship that is likewise radically subaltern in how it is expressed:

‘Leo felt then the entirety of his own life separated by an abyss from the great events of living and of dying. As if he had always lived in a zone that was separate from society. As if his doing badly in the world, or being happy, his wandering, all this had taken place on some stage. Now the portrayal was ending. Fathers and mothers, the Church, the State, the officials in charge of personal data were re-establishing their grip, consigning everything to the nullifying dust of the archives. Everything except the insignificant pain of some extraneous young man.
‘But Thomas was dying. At twenty five years. And he, Leo, who was only four years older, found himself the widower of a companion so that it was as though he had never had one and about him there existed not even a word in any human lexicon that could define the one who had been for him not a husband, not a wife, not a lover, not only a companion but the essential part of a new and mutual fate.’
(P V Tondelli: Camere separate)

Friday, 31 July 2009

Unidentified Narrative Objects: Calvino’s La nuvola di smog

Extended thoughts on ‘liberated territory’ in Calvino.


UNOs appear in Wu Ming I’s identification of the New Italian Epic. A UNO is part of the ‘aberrant development’ of the latter, which:

‘…at times abandons the orbit of the novel and enters the atmosphere from unpredictable directions. ‘What’s that? Is it a bird? No, it’s a plane. No, wait a moment. It’s Superman!’ Absolutely not. It’s an Unidentified Narrative Object.

‘Fiction and non fiction, prose and poetry, diary and investigation, literature and science, mythology and comedy. In the last 15 years many Italian authors have written books which cannot be labelled or pigeon holed in any way because they contain almost everything […] It’s not just a matter of ‘intra-literary’ hybridisation, within the genres of which literature is made up but rather the utilization of whatever will serve its purpose.’
(Wu Ming I: New Italian Epic 2.0, 2008)

The inside flap of the 1965 edition of Calvino’s Racconti: hints at something similar. On the one hand, La nuvola di smog is ‘a short story tempted continually to turn into something different: either a sociological essay or else a private diary’. On the other, these temptations are regularly subverted by Calvino; this allows the text ‘to remain suspended within the environment that suits him best, between symbolic transfiguration, topicality drawn from what is true, bursts of humour and prose poetry.’

So this then is a precursor.

Another way to look not only at La nuvola but also at La formica argentina (its predecessor and not quite identical twin) is through the lens of anthropocentrism and at what the alternative to that might be.

‘Our society lives after the end of nature,’ according to Anthony Giddens. Along with Fukuyama he seems excited by the ending of some war. Between Man and Nature in this case. Apparently Man has won.

The ending of Kaputt involves a struggle against flies:

‘Oh here in Naples too we’ve struggled against the flies. Actually we’ve conducted an absolute war against the flies. For three years we have had a war against the flies.

'In which case how come there are quite so many flies here in Naples?

'Well that’s the thing. The flies won.’

(Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt)

Like Malaparte’s flies, Calvino’s ants and his smog ought to be in the background, mere phenomena, offering a quasi natural setting of some kind. But their activities, albeit compromised or potentiated by man, are what motivates the texts.

Wu Ming I comments as follows:

‘[A]nthropocentrism is alive and well, and it fights against us. Scientific discoveries, objective proofs, the crisis of the subject, the collapse of old ideologies… Nothing seems to have removed from humankind the absurd idea that we are at the centre of the universe.


‘Which is why the issue of looking at things obliquely is so vital and why (as Calvino had sensed) the literary ‘surrendering’ of viewpoints that are exterior to the human, that are non human, which can’t be identified with, will become even more so.’

(Wu Ming I: New Italian Epic 2.0, 2008)


Of course it’s true that Calvino’s protagonists are by no means always human. In, for example, Marcovaldo (II giardino dei gatti ostinati) or Cosmicomiche (notably Qfwfq). But this isn’t really the point. More relevant is his obliqueness. Hence this observation on the voice of the narrator in II visconte dimezzato:

‘[It’s] not the voice of a protagonist per se but rather that of a lateral or secondary character who has the role of narrator.’
(Gregory L. Lucente: An Interview with Italo Calvino; his translation, my italics)

Rather than a battle, some elemental struggle for supremacy or in the service of one viewpoint that’s supposedly more powerful than the others, there’s a rendering up to openness, a ‘surrender’.

And if that ‘surrender’ is important, which I think it is, then one clear example of it (albeit not from Calvino) would be the beginning of Genna’s Grande madre rossa, where the viewpoint (or perhaps the ‘gaze’) has become detached from whoever (or whatever) does the viewing.


One might, for example, creatively (mis)interpret the following:

‘Point of view and movement exclude one another.’
(Giuseppe Genna: Grande madre rossa, 2004)

The totalising stasis of historical achievement, of ‘truth’, of ideological hegemony (which all points of view have in common, even if only in embryo), of ending, is here set at odds with the endless dialectical process of which history is made up, as in Agamben’s view of time. (Benjamin hints at something similar in The Arcades Project when he draws an analogy between allegorical procedures and the relationship between commodity and price: ‘The allegorist rummages here and there for a particular piece, holds it next to some other piece and tests if they fit together … The result can never be known beforehand, for there is no natural mediation between the two. This is just how matters stand with commodity and price. How the price of goods in each case is arrived at can never quite be foreseen.')

In fact, this is the second of two quotations which preface Genna's book, from Ulrike Meinhof's final letter to her Hamburg comrades dated 13 April 1976. The German uses 'Standpunkt', point of view. However, up until this moment Meinhof had actually been using the more explicitly political compound, Klassenstandpunkt', 'class position'.

Meinhof insists that ‘this class position, with which you puff yourselves up [is] unbearable.’ (By 9 May she was dead.) The ‘class situation’ she perceives is within the ‘imperialist system, with its invasion of all relationships by the market and, as a given, the process of State control of society by the ideological and repressive State,’ outside of which ‘there is only illegality and liberated territory.’ (my italics)

The novel itself starts as follows:

‘The gaze is from 10,200 metres over Milan, inside the sky. It’s freezing blue and rarefied up here.

‘The gaze is towards on high, it sees the hemisphere of ozone and cobalt, going outwards from the planet. The luminous barrier of the atmosphere prevents the stars from passing through. The heavenly body absolute, ie the sun, is on the right, extremely white. The gaze swings free and circular in the pure blue void.’

(Giuseppe Genna: Grande madre rossa, 2004)

And one could go a lot further back. To this arresting paragraph from Deledda, for example:

‘A nightingale sang on the solitary tree, which was still suffused with mist. All the coolness of the evening, all the harmony of far away serenities, and the smile of the stars towards the flowers and of the flowers towards the stars, and the proud joy of the fine young shepherds and the closed in passion of the women with their red bodices, and all the melancholy of the poor who live waiting for what’s left over from the tables of the rich, and the sorrows far away and the hopes that are there, and the past, the lost fatherland, the love, the crime, the remorse, the prayer, the canticle of the pilgrim who goes further and still further and doesn’t know where he’ll spend the night but feels himself guided by God, and the green solitude of the smallholding down below, the voice of the river and of the alders down there, the smell of the euphorbias, the laughter and the weeping of Grixenda, the laughter and the weeping of Noemi, the laughter and the weeping of Efix, the laughter and the weeping of the entire world, trembled and vibrated in the notes of the nightingale above the solitary tree that seemed higher than the mountains, with its top scraping the heavens and the tip of its topmost leaf thrust inside a star.’
(Grazia Deledda: Canne al vento, 1913)

What happens here, albeit fleetingly, is exactly that sort of transfer of utterance to some ‘secondary’ voice to which Calvino later referred. The nightingale’s ‘sang’ is a sort of aorist. Not the imperfect of background information (‘cantava’) but the passato remoto (‘cantò’) of a discrete, protagonistic act. The nightingale isn’t subalternised into a soundscape for individualised human behaviours. Nor yet is she an echo. This isn’t pathetic fallacy. Rather the fact of her nightingalehood is extended and exceeded into something else. She becomes the owner of a positive act of her own, which (even though it has no purpose beyond itself) subsumes all human activity, present, past and future; all three are represented. And yet she too is exceeded. Whereas she sits on top of the tree (‘sull’albero’) her song rises above it (‘sopra l’albero’) like the tip of the topmost leaf as it pierces the heart of some star: her viewpoint has been surrendered to something-not-of-this-world.

So clearly there are precursors and successors.


Of course, the smog of Calvino’s La nuvola di smog (1958) is also a physical smog, a matter of grey particulates. The Argentine ants of La formica argentina (Linepithema Humile) do exist, and in Ligurian gardens. However, Calvino employs what he elsewhere called ‘the essayistic dimension’ to address irrationality with rationalistic precision. And it is this UNO disjuncture, this anomalousness, which enables Ovid and Lucretius (or maybe Cerveteri and Bensi, respectively the ‘poet’ and the ‘philosopher’ of La speculazione edilizia) to join together in his work.

Here, for example, is Gore Vidal on La formica:

‘[It is] as minatory and strange as anything by Kafka. It is also hideously funny. In some forty pages Calvino gives us […] the human condition today. Or the dilemma of modern man. Or the disrupted environment. Or nature's revenge. Or allegory of grace. Whatever…’
(Gore Vidal: Calvino’s Novels, NYRB 1974)

Now clearly there’s a link between, on the one hand, what Vidal calls ‘nature’s revenge’ and, on the other, what Wu Ming I says about displacing anthropocentrism. Yet equally clearly something else is going on: the anomalousness that Vidal conjures up with ‘whatever’ emerges from two directions. On the one hand the ants provide an unexpected challenge to the psyche from outside: perhaps they are going to win. On the other they are an extrusion of the psyche (some sort of over-reaction coming from within; some interior disposition) into that outer world:

‘We didn’t know then about the ants when we came to settle here. […] Thinking it over, perhaps Uncle Augusto had mentioned them once – You should see the ants down there, not like the ants we have here – but it was a sidetrack from talking about something else…’
(Calvino: La formica argentina)

Calvino’s ants are hardly Deledda’s nightingale and cannot be read as such. But they are perhaps the McGuffin. They allow him to ‘surrender’ control over the narrative just as the narrator in turn ‘surrenders’ to their effects. As a result the text becomes an early ‘game of combinations, following through the possibilities implicit in the material from which it has been made.’ (Una pietra sopra) Which means in turn that whether or not these ants are (for example) either the anxiety from which one hoped to get away or the challenge which one really hoped one didn’t have to face in the first place it scarcely matters any more. They could have been avoided, excluded or suppressed either way. Were it not for the exterminator, Signor Baudino (who has come to resemble an ant, and who acts a sort of untore, the paranoid interpretation, spreading the pestilence in order to benefit from it, or maybe as a sort of stand-in for Calvino, the postmodernist interpretation) it is possible that there might not even have been such a problem in the first place.

But the ants are there nonetheless. Not quite foregrounded but endlessly, self-replicatingly there: an existential emblem of subversion:

The great oak, the emperor’s pride and joy
is collapsing!
Who’d have thought it!
It wasn’t the river, nor yet did some hurricane rip
that magnificent trunk from its roots,
rather it was the ants, thousands of ants
organized, working together day by day
year after year!
(Dario Fo: La grande quercia)

Except that Calvino rejects all such programmatic engagement of that sort.


‘The artist manages to communicate only through the sort of isolation which a political or propagandistic type of engagement cannot affect.’
(This is Montale countering Gramsci in La solitudine dell'artista)

In his 1964 preface to Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, though clearly speaking with hindsight Calvino writes as follows. His point is a little different:

‘Today when one speaks of the ‘literature of commitment’ one generally gets it wrong, as though speaking of a literature that serves to illustrate a theme that’s already been defined, that’s independent of poetical expression. On the contrary, that which one called ‘engagement’, commitment, can be found at every level…’ (my italics)

There’s an example of one sort of level in La speculazione edilizia. The protagonist sits listening to a dispute between his two friends, Bensi and Cerveteri. He ‘really doesn’t know which side he ought to take’:

‘Bensi was seized by one of his nervous laughs … as though to express his own pained amusement at witnessing his interlocutor getting lost in a labyrinth from which he alone knew the way out.

'We have to proceed from the ideology to the dream, not from the dream to the ideology … Ideology runs through all your dreams rather as butterflies are pierced through by pins.

'Cerveteri looked at him, dumbfounded.

'Butterflies? Why did you say butterflies?’

(Calvino: La speculazione edilizia, 1957)

Finally here is Calvino, this time in propria persona, speaking about a moment in Palomar:

‘In that brief story of mine I don’t take sides but instead I limit myself to representing both positions.’
(Gregory L. Lucente: An Interview with Italo Calvino)

La formica and La nuvola instantiate ways of speaking. They turn on the sort of social constructivism in which meaning lies (in both senses) in the telling rather than in what the telling is about. The differences, though, are profound.

The narrator of La formica, has moved out from the town into the country. The narrator of La nuvola has travelled the other way. He arrives in the town (‘for someone who has just got off the train, the city is one big station’) as though entering into a holding formation. He takes ‘some sort of a room’:

‘I took my overcoat, my scarf and my great illusion
I left home
to go to where to where to where to where to where…
the cold ends,
to the start of another ghetto.’
(Antonello Venditti: Dove)

Here’s how the piece begins:

‘It was a time when nothing much mattered to me, when I came to settle in this town. Settle’s not quite the right word. I didn’t have any desire to settle down, what I wanted was that everything should stay fluid and provisional around me and only in that way did it seem I’d be settled inside, even though I wouldn’t have been able to explain what that meant.’
(Calvino: La nuvola di smog)


The narrative of La formica tells of a broken idyll: the idealised state is not to suffer from ants. The world was clean to begin with but is now revealed as infested, so the watchword must be ‘response’. Only one question remains: How should one react? With ill suppressed hysteria, like the wife of the narrator? By soldiering on, like Mr and Mrs Reginaudo, keeping cheerful along the lines of the peasant in Ho visto un re? With endless, ineffectual ingenuity, like Captain Brauni, a sort of Italian Heath Robinson? By grandly ignoring the problem, as does Madam Mauro (just as the Pintor sisters ignore their own decline in Canne al vento)? And so on.

This is, of course, the ‘allegory’, to pick up a term from Vidal: how to make a moral choice? Responses vary. Attitudes may be brought in a priori or may arise through experience. Whether the ants are something natural or have been humanly induced remains uncertain. However, the principle of ‘commitment’ to one’s own reactions or to some chosen point of view is never in any doubt.

Until, that is, the narrative of La nuvola turns all this around. The pivot is political. Calvino had published La formica back in 1952. La nuvola was written in the summer of ’58. In July ’57 Calvino had published La gran bonaccia delle antille, satirising the Stalinist stagnation of the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti and provoking a response (Stalin as Captain Ahab and so forth) from Maurizio Ferrara, Giuliano Ferrara’s father. He had resigned from the Party one month later.

A figurative smog is what its narrator wants, at least at first. It’s something not quite settled:

‘…it had to be entirely provisional and I wanted this to be clear to myself as well.’

The ants embody a constant, undefeatable energy, the restlessness of invasion. The smog is undefined. It’s a depression, lethargy. It subsists as a transience which perpetuates itself through always leaving traces, an elective but threatened pessimism to be set against both the failing optimism of La formica and, for example, the energetic intrusions of the narrator’s girlfriend, Claudia:

‘How could she ever have understood this unhappiness of mine? There are those who condemn themselves to the greyness of a life of increased mediocrity because they have had a grief, a misfortune; but there are also those who do it because they’ve experienced more good fortune than what they felt they could cope with.’

Unlike the world of La formica, whose supposedly ‘natural’ state is shown to have been corrupt through the original sin of having ants, La nuvola’s world is an already dirty, human infested place, one where ‘commitment’ (as it turns out) is also under threat, the commitment of performing a narrative that’s expected, which in this case is a narrative against pollution for a journal called Purification that’s owned by the same person (Cordà the engineer) who produces the pollution in the first place:

‘…it was he who wafted it without cessation over the town and APAUIC, the Agency for the Purification of the Atmosphere in Urban Industrial Centres, was a creation of the smog, born from a need to give to those who worked for the smog the hope of a life that would not be wholly smog but at the same time to celebrate its power.’

So obviously one could normalise this as an ‘allegory’ about following party lines, or indeed about the imprisonment of any ideology or orthodoxy whatsoever, about anything in which experience is greyed and reduced by being included in some sort of formulation.

But isn’t it in the nature of allegory that it resists such consistent readings?

Here is Benjamin, making precisely this point:

‘Where man is drawn towards the symbol, allegory emerges from the depths of being to intercept the intention, and to triumph over it […] If it is to hold its own against the tendency to absorption, the allegorical must constantly unfold in new and surprising ways. The symbol, on the other hand, … remains persistently the same.’
(Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama)


In the symbolism of one-to-one correspondence, according to De Michele in Carmilla, ‘the symbol is already inscribed in an interpretative dimension made rigid through the pretence of objectivity.’ (my italics) Likewise metaphor ‘risks operating as a translation of sense within some pre-determined cognitive environment.’ (again the italics are mine, as is the touch of Sperber.) Whereas ‘the allegorical is autonomous with respect to the overall context of antinomy, an autonomy which the symbolic is denied.’

And since de Michele pillages Benjamin who in turn pillages Creuzer, here is Creuzer himself, explaining what he calls the ‘difference between symbolic and allegorical representation’:

‘The latter signifies merely a general concept, or an idea which differs from itself, whereas the former is the very incarnation and embodiment of the idea. In the former a process of substitution happens … In the latter the concept itself has descended into our physical world and we see it directly in the image.’
(G F Creuzer: Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen)

Which accounts for, say, allegorical objects such as the ice which tinkles in the glasses of the first class passengers travelling on de Gregori’s Titanic. Or for the complex relationship either between de Gregori’s mythical Titanic both with the (earlier) wreck of the Sirio and the fate of postwar Italy. Or the similarly complex relationship between the ‘wounded steinbock’, the historical Milanese fraudster Felice Riva and the issue of (failed) political violence in early ’70s Italy which Antonello Venditti explores in Lo stambecco ferito.


Allegory, ideology and memory are aspects of one another. Ideology is a sort of allegory reconfigured as memory. Thus the UK’s New Labour, freed from ideology, lost both its memory and its ability to envisage the future in the course of its coming to power: not just Agamben’s ‘means without ends’ but government by Alzheimer’s, reaching for absurd metaphorical fragments from elsewhere (Big Tent, New Deal etc) with which to remedy the lack.

For Calvino ideology presents a different problem. Here’s how he introduces it in La speculazione edilizia. First he describes the gloriously heterogeneous anomaly of a section of land owned by the protagonist’s mother. On it there’s a former chicken coop now doing service as a potting shed. It is said to have (Calvino’s parents were botanists and Calvino himself studied agriculture, albeit briefly) ‘a disharmonious aspect, between the agricultural, the scientific and the highly valued.’ It is, in short, a heterocosm. Some pages further on the protagonist’s two friends, Bensi and Cerveteri, decide to start a journal, although its title is still in doubt. According to Bensi:

‘…we have to let it be understood right from the very title that what we’re aiming for is a generalised phenomenology that brings back each separate form of knowledge into a single discourse.

‘It was on this point that the argument between Bensi and Cervetero started up … Since everything was to become part of a single discourse was the journal to bring in only what had already been incorporated into that general discourse or rather that which still lay outside?’


The key to La formica is the discovery of Inside. What happens when you find yourself on the inside of something else (or within an ideology) is that you lose a degree of autonomy: you live within a situation that persists beyond your control. The narrator visits the noble Madam Mauro in her house on the upper slopes. Is she troubled by ants? Is she external or internal to the situation, in other words? ‘We chase them away with a broom,’ is her response. But unfortunately:

‘at that very moment her expression of studied impassivity was traversed by something like a physical distress, and we saw that whilst remaining seated she shifted her weight quite firmly to one side, bending herself at the waist. If it hadn’t been inconsistent with the assurances that were issuing from her mouth I would have sworn that an Argentine ant, having got under her clothes, had nipped at her…’

The narrator and his wife go to the sea, which ought to be a figure of Outside, but find instead a sort of reprise of the ants. Whilst it appears as another idyll beneath the idyllic ‘calm’ of the surface there is an endless, minute activity:

‘The waters were calm, with just a continuous swapping about of colours, blue and black, getting denser as they got further away. I thought of the water stretching out in the distance like that, of the infinite, tiny grains of sand down at the bottom, where the current deposits the white husks of shells that have been polished by the waves.’


The key to La nuvola is the converse: the discovery of Outside. The narrator’s view of his landlady is a negative one. But though her kitchen is in chaos she maintains her public rooms like a ‘private work of art’, created through, as it were, subtraction or withdrawal of some ‘liberated territory’, producing an outside within. The cheery decisiveness of the narrator’s girlfriend, Claudia, is an intrusion into melancholia from outside. And so on.

The narrator brings Claudia to a lookout point in order to show her the view. But his own viewpoint is broken and ‘surrendered’ through what happens then. He shows her the whitish peaks of the Alps which emerge ‘from the sky’ but loses control of the narrative in a sort of Calvino sublime. He has the names but cannot name them because he doesn’t know which is which. ‘A sense of vastness had seized me. I don’t know if it was Claudia’s hat and her dress that did this or whether it was the view’:

‘We were there, looking out over the low wall. I was squeezing her waist. I was looking at countryside in all its multiple aspects, struck immediately by a need for analysis, already dissatisfied with myself because I didn’t have at my disposal an adequate nomenclature for places and for natural phenomena. She, on the other hand, was ready to transform these sensations into unexpected humorous impulses, effusions, into things she said that had nothing to do with it. And it was then that I saw that thing.’


‘That thing’ is actually the smog, at least as seen from outside. Whereas the ants’ greatest reality comes with the discomfort, actual or imagined, of Madam Mauro (La formica bids for totality, either the totality of solution or the unstoppable taking over of the ants) La nuvola works by limitation. Such as, in this instance, through conceiving the smog as a cloud. The narrator describes it as such, and this is the point of its greatest un-reality. But what Claudia either sees or chooses to see instead is a flock of birds.

‘And I remained there, looking out and watching for the first time from the outside the cloud that surrounded me all the time, that cloud I lived in, that lived in me and I knew that of all the variousness of the world with which I was surrounded this was the only thing that mattered to me.’

In the restaurant just below where he lives the narrator shares a table with a worker. They read separate papers. The narrator, in David Riesman’s terms, is other directed: ‘mine was the one that everybody read, the most important paper in town; I certainly had no reason to get myself noticed as someone set apart from other people by reading a different paper.’ Whereas his paper is stylish but conformist, the worker’s paper is ‘grey, incredibly dense, monotonous’ but at the same time also critical:

‘[His] was so to speak the converse of mine, not just because the ideas it put forward were the opposite but because it concerned itself with things that for my one didn’t even exist: employees given the sack, machine workers who ended up with a hand trapped in the gears…’
(my italics; Dolce’s Inchiesta a Palermo was published in 1956)

The narrator’s conception of the worker is a negative one. He projects his own lack of openness onto his interlocutor:

‘I tried to give [my impression of his paper] to my tablemate … endeavouring at the same time (since he seemed to me to be the sort who didn’t care for criticism …) to play down my judgement’s more negative aspects.’

However, he is wrong in his assessment of the other’s supposed loyalty. Indeed he perceives his being wrong as the other’s resistance to his own judgemental hegemony, whereas:

‘[i]nstead [the worker] seemed to follow his own train of thought, in which my appraisal of his paper must have seemed superfluous, out of place.

‘You know, he said, there hasn’t yet been a paper that’s been put together as it should have been put together. Not as I would like to see it done.’

The worker has formed a study group ‘amongst the young people in our business’. (Montaldi founded the Gruppo di Unità Proletaria in 1957):

‘I didn’t follow what he was saying any more. I thought that someone like [him] wasn’t at all trying to escape from the smoky greyness around us but to transform it into a moral value, into an internal norm.

'The smog, I said.

'The smog? Yes, I know that Cordà wants to play the modern industrialist … To purify the atmosphere … Let him go and tell his workers that. Certainly it won’t be him that does the purifying. It’s a matter of social structure … If we do manage to change it, we’ll also solve the smog problem. Us, that is. Not them.'


The sea at the end of La formica is another attempt at the natural, freed of pollution or entailments.

Towards the end La nuvola the narrator spots a side road. There’s a mule loaded up with laundry. He comes to see the process of laundry exchange (soiled for clean) as something festive, as a different and restorative human event:

‘Between the meadows, the hedges and the poplars my gaze continued to trace the water troughs, the words Steam Laundry written on certain low buildings … the fields where the women passed by with baskets as though they were harvesting grapes to take down the dry clothes from the line … It wasn’t much. But for me, who sought no more than images to keep in view, perhaps it was enough.’

Which is how the story ends.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Ivan Della Mea: the Personal is Political

Ivan Della Mea on meeting Roberto Leydi and Umberto Eco.

Towards the end of the 50s I’d sent some of my songs to Cantacronache but they’d been rejected. However Gianni Bosio had learnt about these songs from my brother Luciano and he wanted to hear them. So one evening my brother fixed an appointment for me at Roberto Leydi’s house in via Cappuccio. I was hesitant. I didn’t want to go in and I wandered round the outside of the house for ages until a blonde woman came up to me, very courteous and attractive. This was Sandra Mantovani. ‘You must be Luciano’s brother. I’m Roberto Leydi’s wife. We’re still expecting you.’

So I decided to go up. Up there I found Roberto Leydi, Gianni Bosio and Umberto Eco. I was a bit embarrassed about my songs. I didn’t want to sing them. ‘My stuff’s a bit peculiar.’ Then I secreted myself round a corner, where there was a piano, and I sang (doing so was a liberation) these Ballads about Violence Great and Small, autobiographical material drawn in part from my brother’s experience and in part from my own. Even though I’d never thought of using them to present a representative sample of the great violence of fascism through the smaller violence of my father. It came to me more as an urgent need to liberate myself from my family by way of warding off misfortune and to shout out my availability to a thousand and more other families to seek out and to find.

Then I emerged from my corner with the air of a cat that’s wondering, ‘What the hell will happen to me now?’ and they began to argue. I remember only the initial verdicts of Roberto Leydi on the general import of my pieces: ‘This is a typically anarchico-syndacalist approach.’ And that of Umberto Eco: ‘Here we are faced with an archetype.’ Gianni Bosio, on the other hand, stayed silent.

They discussed all this for ages and I went to sleep on the couch. When I woke at 4.00 they were still discussing it. So then I went home.

(Ivan Della Mea, taken from Cesare Bermani: Una storia cantata)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Ivan Della Mea 1940-2009

Here is a rough translation of Io so che un giorno, from the 1966 LP of that name and once said by him to have been his favourite. It anticipates, in its way, cognitive capitalism.

I know that one day
he’ll come to me
a white man
dressed in white
and he’ll say to me:
‘My dear chap, you’re exhausted’
and with a smile
he will offer me his hand.

He will lead me
amongst white houses
the walls will be white
the heavens will be white
he will dress me
in coarse material, harsh and white
and I will have a room
a white bed for me as well.

Come that day
and all those people
including youths
dressed in white
will speak to me
about their dreams
as if this were

I will look at them
and I will tell them
about freedom;
that same man will come
with all those others strong and white
and to my bed
they’ll tie me fast with straps.

I will say, ‘is a fact,
though you may tie me
still it resists.’
And they will smile:
‘My dear chap, you are bonkers,
does not exist, not any more.’

And then I'll laugh:
this world is great
here everything has got its price
even the brain.
‘Sell it, my friend
sell it with your freedom
and you can have a place
in this society.’

Three cheers for life
bought on the never never
along with the Fiat 600
the washing machine
three cheers for the system
which renders equal and makes happy
those who do have power
and those who on the contrary don't have any.

(It’s probably worth mentioning, as a sort of footnote, that his brother Luciano, 16 years his senior, was interned in a German concentration camp in 1940 and in the ’70s worked with Franco Basaglia’s colleague Agostino Pirella in assisting those deprived of their freedom under Italy’s former mental health legislation.)

Thursday, 4 June 2009

With Respect to What Might Have Been

Language and what Wu Ming call ‘the mistaken side of history’.


Somewhere in Percorsi del ’68 Augusto Illuminati warns of the dangers of confusing revolution in all its destructive intent (shooting the clocks and so forth) with the historical frame we later put around its unsatisfactory achievements, which are (for better or worse) a great deal more conservative.

‘Never mistake the pattern of the nails for the structure of the house,’ was one of Faulkner’s apothegms. According to Illuminati you should likewise never see the ruins of some former politics as ‘a prequel of the rebuilding’. Destruction, opposition and/or defeat, on the one hand, and creation, re-creation and/or success, on the other, are orthogonally positioned. History is written by its victors, according to the phrase sometimes ascribed to Churchill. Or in the version which Clinton ascribed to Plato:

‘Plato said thousands of years ago: Those who tell the story rule society.’

(Bill Clinton: Remarks at a Jewish community centre in Scarsdale, NY, 2000)

And so on and so forth. The point is clear enough. The other side of history is what Wu Ming call its ‘mistaken side’ in the blurb to Manituana.


‘The form in which language is expressed itself defines subjectivity,’ according to Lacan. And this is another aspect. Lacan also (famously) has much to say on the future perfect, the ‘historical’ subject in all its completedness:

‘I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realised in my history is not the past definite of that which was, since it is no more, nor yet the present perfect of that which has been in what I am, but the future perfect of that which I shall have been for what I’m in the process of becoming.’

(Jacques Lacan: from Part III of Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychoanalyse, Rapport du Congrès de Rome,1953)

Which is to say that rather than inflecting causally the historical sequence First A then B then C… as A was the cause of B…, we might complain instead that our present state of A is explicable by our becoming B. Change what we would become, in other words, and we can change our present state:

The revolution ...
isn’t some simple event.
The revolution ...
is a daily conquest.

(Enzo del Re: La Rivoluzione)


And finally here is Benni on how restraints can be put in place through the use of nostalgic language:

‘Our dreams were better than theirs.’
‘Maybe … Or maybe we just dreamed that our dreams were better.’

(Stefano Benni: La compagnia dei celestini)

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Britain's 'Clean Hands" Moment

British politics are at a ‘Clean Hands’ moment comparable to Italy circa 1992.


Lucarelli introduces his De Luca trilogy with a fine story about interviewing a retired police sergeant who had served first in Mussolini’s OVRA, arresting anti-fascists and communists, then in the partisan police, arresting ex-fascists, then as a policeman in Italy’s Christian Democrat republic arresting former partisans. ‘And so on,’ up to 1981.

In fact Lucarelli was at the University of Bologna at this time, still researching a thesis (subsequently abandoned) on the police under Fascism pre ’43. But he had wandered somewhat off piste. A question came to mind: for whom did this chap vote?

‘I wanted to know if at least at some point he had been bothered about putting the handcuffs on someone, and instead he looked at me, slightly offended, and said, What’s that got to do with it? I’m a policeman.’
(Lucarelli: Nota di Carlo Lucarelli in Il commissario De Luca, 1990-1996)

That sense of a centre of gravity reappears during the second of the trilogy:

‘Look, I like my work. I’ve got it all in here. He tapped his head with the tip of one finger. And I think I’m good at it. But I lack experience. I took the police officer course when the armistice happened and I went immediately into the mountains with the partisans… The practical stuff I did alone. But it’s not enough. It won’t be enough very shortly because, yes, everything’s going to change. Perhaps there’ll be a revolution but the police, this much I know, will always be the same.’
(Lucarelli: L’estate torbida, 1991)


It might of course seem like trimming. It might be exactly that. But not always. Sometimes, ideally, there might be a loyalty to something higher which can unite the private person, his constancy, her self respect, with a social identity which perdures through all its changes.
What’s significant about Britain’s current parliamentary crisis is not that a significant number of MPs can now be seen to have been corrupt (that much isn’t surprising) but that the Fees Office had been drawn into that corruption, just as the intelligence services had been drawn into a different sort of corruption during the preparations for the invasion of Iraq under Cardinal Blair.
Indeed it has been the marvellous achievement of New Labour, heading towards a British version of Italy circa 1992, continuing the damage wrought by Thatcherism, to have destroyed much of the independence of the Civil Service, to have damaged gravely, unacceptably, the freedom of action of the Judiciary, and to have expunged almost completely any notion of politics as a set of actors, actions and beliefs that together constitute what we used to call a vocation and not something comparable to, say, the activities of some of the more questionable figures in the business community with whose salaries politicians' incomes are now, apparently, meant to be in competition.

To have destroyed, in short, not only independence and self respect at a personal level (and thus in the case of individual MPs) but also constancy and integrity at a social level, which is the level at which institutions and those who make up those institutions have to function.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Keeping Cheerful

Ci ragiono e canto contains the splendid song Ho visto un re (words by or adapted by Dario Fo; music by Paolo Ciarchi, best known for Piccolo uomo and now, I believe, a noise artist, and/or Enzo Jannacci):

I saw a king
a king who wept, still seated in the saddle.
He wept so many tears, so many tears that
even the horse got wet. Poor king
and poor old horse as well.
The emperor had taken from him one fine castle
the crafty sod
out of thirty two of them he’d owned. Poor king
and poor old horse as well.

The song, of course, goes on. A king, a bishop, a rich man, an emperor and a cardinal have all of them been ‘half ruined’. (The bishop indeed is so upset that he bites the hand of his sacristan.) Fo then mentions the peasant. He’s been cheated out of his chicken, his turkey, his wife, his farmstead, his son who’s gone for military service, even his pig. So he’s been completely ruined.
But does the peasant weep? Not a bit of it. He laughs. Because it’s the duty of the poor to keep cheerful, to avoid upsetting wealthy folk.


Rowan Williams appeared to take a similar line in yesterday’s Times. Britain’s MPs have suffered enough. They’ve even sacked the Speaker, rather in the manner of the bishop biting the hand of his unfortunate sacristan. Enough humiliation. We must move on.

‘We must move on’ is painfully New Labour. Indeed there’s a thesis to be written (using Talmy’s Force Dynamics) on how New Labour likes to use ‘speed’ whenever it lacks direction, which is often. Here, though, it belies something else. Whilst Dr Williams purports to solicit restraint when attacking dodgy MPs, he actually seems more confident in making the perfectly valid point that public service is (or ought to be) about something more than rule based behaviour and that the something he has in mind includes (or ought to include) the institution of a higher morality of some sort.

And yet he misses the vital point, which is that the Great Expenses Fiasco with all its absurdities, its lying and its cheating is but a symptom of a very much greater corruption, that of representative democracy itself. So his thesis becomes a purely local one about cleaning up peculation, about how a regular audit by nanny (‘Turn out your pockets this minute, Master McNulty!’) won’t solve everything and not about more explicitly political issues, such as:
  • how Parliament itself now fails miserably to represent the electoral will of this country. In 2005, for example, 22% of those eligible to vote supported the present government, despite its large majority. This was the worst result for any single party government since at least World War I
  • how the Executive now retains almost total power within the parliamentary process, so that the views of the opposition can generally be ignored
  • how the Whip systems, the Committee system and the craven acceptance of both of these by backbench MPs (who now function either as lobby fodder or as deracinated local ombudsmen or as both; hence the two homes) means that reams of fatuous and ill considered legislation are passed without scrutiny and, frequently, without comment
  • how, in more general terms, principle has now become mere policy, consumables to be sold to a supposedly gullible public for whom New Labour has contempt; means have been severed from ends; political labels have become brands, power has been exiled into bureaucracy, and so on.


But if representative democracy is to mean anything, then it must be about something very like a sort of mutual inspiration: of the leaders by the people and of the people by their leaders. Whereas what we have is mutual contempt. We may or may not want to solve this. And if we do, it can’t be by keeping cheerful lest MPs should get upset.

Anger may embarrass many people, but it is the surest sign that our democracy isn’t yet dead.

We need to become angrier still. And angrier, of course, about still more. Not just about bent cabinet ministers, duck islands and moats.

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Persistence of Technology

E Nesbit on how technology captures subjectivity.

‘There's a dreadful law here - it was made by mistake, but there it is - that if any one asks for machinery they have to have it and keep on using it.’

(E Nesbit: The Magic City)

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Manufactured Fiction

'The environment is so full of television, party political broadcasts and advertising campaigns that you hardly need to do anything. We're just drowning under manufactured fiction.'
(J G Ballard, who died on Sunday, in The Observer, September 2002)

'I want to go to East Grinstead'

Gertrude Stein described the experience of coming from Oakland in these terms:

'What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.'
(Gertrude Stein: Everybody's Autobiography)

When Augé (in Un ethnologue dans le metro) describes the non-space of the Metro as 'the collective without the celebration, and the solitude without the isolation', he too is reflecting how it feels to have a form without substance, to find a label attached to some sort of empty cabinet, to be in a situation where there is no experience (or no 'there') there, where the extensional, the denotative, seems to be the only option because the connotative, the intensional, is either denied or is suppressed or has gone missing.

If modernism proceeds, typically, by finding ways to 'make it new', as a revolt against or overturning of tradition, whatever 'tradition' means, then one question raised by these comments is whether this particular fish is rotting from the head inwards and downwards or outwards from within. Whether, in terms of one of the false dilemmas posed by modernism, form takes precedence over content, an endless sequence of new moulds into which something is poured and thus reshaped, or whether content pushes form. (It scarcely matters here that form and content are actually indivisible; it's how we think of them that counts. And, of course, there are parallels between 'content' and movement, or grass roots politics, on the one hand and between 'form' and the avant garde, or party structure, on the other.)

Varèse seems clear enough, at least at first, that content pushes form:

'Form is a result - the result of a process. Each of my works discovers its own form. I have never tried to fit any of my compositions into any known container.'
(Edgard Varèse: Rhythm, Form and Content)

So too is Creeley. 'Form is never more than an extension of content'; this in a letter to Olson. Olson quoted it in Projective Verse. Creeley later expanded on it as follows to make poetry analogous to something naturally occurring:

'Form is what happens. It's the fact of things in the world, however they are. So that form in that way is simply the presence of any thing.


'The what of what was being said gained the how of what was being said, and the how (the mode) then became what I called form.'
(In Martin Lammon: From an interview with Linda Wagner, in Written in Water, Written in Stone)

In fact, both the proposed relationship between form and content and their perceived relationship with the natural are ambivalent.

For Zukofsky, for example, 'Poetry convinces not by argument but by the form it creates to carry its content.' (Zukofsky: Test 52, from A Test of Poetry, 1948). However, that's because he conceives of poetry as a sort of totalising procedure in which 'content' changes its meaning to become poetry's organising forms just as the 'content' of science is a formalisation of the world with which it engages, which is somehow formless without it:

'[I]t appears that the scientific definition of poetry can be based on nothing less than the world, the entire humanly known world.

'Like the theories of science which are valid because they explain most, this definition will be valid inasmuch as it will be comprehensive.'
(Zukofsky: Poetry / for my son when he can read, 1946)

Which is why, in the spirit of Zukofsky, Ron Silliman can say in a curious formulation, about the work of Alan Davies, that 'the content of form is anger' and of Zukofsky himself that there are two alternative readings: 'Zukofsky as suggestion of possibility' on the one hand and 'Zukofsky as horizon or limit' on the other. Whilst for his own part Silliman himself claims to use form ('The purpose of the poem, like that of any act, is to change the world') as a technique to break down, a sort of exemplary act, his own cognitive limits:

'When I wrote the first volume of Ketjak in 1974, I used a systematic methodology to break down certain habits of mind that prevented me from focusing on the sentence as the point of perception.'(Ron Silliman: Wild Form)

'A book is a machine to think with,' according to I A Richards. (Richards: Principles of Literary Criticism, 1926) Williams too, conceives of poetry in these industrial terms rather than those of Nature:

'To make two bold statements: There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.

'Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.'
(William Carlos Williams: Introduction to The Wedge)

But in fact what Zukofsky and Williams both represent is actually quite a 'tame' view of form, in which the world is codified but somehow not engaged with except with rubber gloves. (An earlier post on technology may give a flavour of what I mean.) For Zukofsky 'form' implies a sort of conceptual syntax, permitting no unorganised conception and no excess of the natural over conception. For Williams it's more explicit: nothing is 'sentimental', 'ill defined' or 'redundant'; everything becomes part of an idealised mechanics, just as the ideal of 'science' hovers over Zukofsky.

Of course it's Kerouac (hence the title of Silliman's piece) who represents (quite self consciously) what 'wild' means in this context. But Kerouac's rhetoric is solipsistic, even bombastic. Indeed there's a self contradiction. What ought to come from the future or from outside or from the natural ('discovery') actually comes from the past and from within, from the confected: 'every image and every memory'. So that the encounter isn't, in the end, with the alterity of, say, an undiscovered wilderness but with his own 'exploding' mind. As with a tantrum in a playpen there's a reaching out towards totality, for a freedom of speech that denies others' freedom not to listen, but at the same time an awareness of limitation which functions for Kerouac rather as shame does for Levinas:

'What I'm beginning to discover now is something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story... into realms of revealed Picture... wild form, man, wild form. Wild form's the only form holds what I have to say - my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory.... I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know.'
(Jack Kerouac: letter reproduced in J C Holmes: Nothing More to Declare)


Of course the dilemma I posed at the start (which comes first, form or content?) and its essential absurdity may still seem somewhat abstract. And yet if one thinks about composers things get a good deal clearer. Consider, for example, the apparent opposition between Milton Babbitt's total serialism, theoretically total control, and Cage's indeterminacy. Whereas for Babbitt form arises out of the rigorous construction of content, for Cage the content (which is often something quite unknown) is invited to participate, a revelation of Sound corresponding to Kerouac's Picture, through the rigorous prior construction of 'arbitrary' formal constraints.

And so to Ayckbourn, which might well seem at first a very odd leap to have made.
But Ayckbourn's conceptual approach resembles that of Cage at least in this respect, that he uses form, a priori, rather as Cage does, to compel the arrival of results for which the corresponding causes don't exist and thus to break the discursive, organising syntax of what we think of as reality.

And yet this resemblance masks a sharp distinction.

Augé describes what interests him about the Metro as 'the play between the subway map - which is there, and is imposed on us - and the various ways we find to move through it'. Ayckbourn's characters are likewise at odds with his plots. They live with what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the 'emotional residue' of unnatural boundaries. They struggle to get free of them and, in the end, remain imprisoned together by what is randomly positioned, orthogonal or parallel relative to them but which is emphatically not them at all. When, for example, Tom punches Norman in Table Manners (one of The Norman Conquests) it's by way of protecting Annie; however Tom has misunderstood. When Doug knocks Vic into the swimming pool in Man of the Moment, indirectly causing his death, he ought to be taking revenge. In fact, it's out of a sort of knee-jerk chivalry, like an emotional Groundhog Day. And so on.

Whereas, and this is a major distinction, the thrust of Zukofsky, Williams, Cage et al is to open up new frontiers (progress: the impulse to colonise and coerce, to 'civilise' through the operation of boundaries or of science, to deny the idea of the ruin) Ayckbourn deals with what Benjamin calls the 'refuse of history' and what Freud called the 'refuse of the phenomenological world', that which is left behind by such constructed objects as rugs, board games and swimming pools:

'Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.'
(Gloria Anzaldúa: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza)

'... to demonstrate a historical materialism which has annihilated within itself the idea of progress [...] Its founding concept is not progress but actualisation.'
(Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project, N2,2)

'Where the categorical network is so closely woven that much of that which lies beneath is concealed by conventions of opinion, including scientific opinion, then eccentric phenomena which have not yet been incorporated by this network at times, take on an unexpected gravity.'
(T W Adorno: On the Logic of the Social Sciences)

Whereas Cage's approach is inclusive, bringing into account what the attention would have overlooked simply by widening the scope, even though in practice someone of a later generation like Silliman behaves as a sort of gatekeeper, drawing a Manichean distinction between the ridiculously named 'post avant' and those he dismisses grandly as the 'School of Quietiude', the effect of Ayckbourn's stagecraft is quite otherwise and exclusive: aspects of experience and motivation are cut off arbitrarily rather as Peter Pan's shadow is cut off by the closing window.

Thus Jack's morality in A Small Family Business has a purely denotative quality, it acts as an empty label since he crumbles like the rest. So too the play's attempt to reconcile the Thatcherite principles of individual greed and family solidarity, which excludes Jack's daughter, Samantha. Likewise Vic in Man of the Moment, whose self reinvention has been only of his image in the media. And Nerys, Vic's original victim and now Doug's wife through the exigencies of the plot, who has been excluded from the play altogether.


In bringing exclusion into the mechanics of the plays, in other words, Ayckbourn writes not as the victor or about the loser but rather out of the state of defeat, out of abjection, out of the dream and reality of Oakland, or rather of East Grinstead, less heroic even than Hastings, not as one of the tramplers but out of what has been divided, broken, trampled and left behind as progress goes on progressing.

So maybe what Benjamin said of Baudelaire could find some relevance here:

'That which the allegorical intention has fixed upon is sundered from the customary contexts of life: it is at once shattered and preserved. Allegory holds fast to those ruins...

'Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside; Baudelaire evokes it from within.'
(Benjamin: The Arcades Project, J56,1 and J56,2)

Friday, 17 April 2009

Three Views of Duplicity

Alan Ayckbourn on corruption:

'The human mind, left to its own devices, can usually justify any code of behaviour it chooses to suit circumstances. Beware!'
(Ayckbourn: programme note to A Small Family Business)

Gordon Brown on the behaviour of Damian McBride, a man he personally employed, whilst Chancellor and as Prime Minister, for more than ten years:

'I have said all along that when I saw this first I was very angry indeed. I think the most important thing we do is reassure people everything is being done to clean up politics in our country.'
(Gordon Brown: statement in Glasgow 16 April 2009)

Barack Obama's Nuremberg defence of those who carried out torture in Guantánamo:

'This administration has made it clear from day one that it will not condone torture ... those who carried out their duties ... in good faith ... will not be subject to prosecution.'
(Barack Obama: statement accompanying release of CIA memos 16 April 2009)

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Discrepancy, Surplus and Rhythm

Johnson's rebuttal of Berkley's immaterialism was material enough: he stubbed his toe, a demonstration that reality and what Berkley thought about reality were discrepant.

But what about the hurt that stubbing causes? Why do toddlers complain (about, say, a bump on the knee) when the hurt itself has faded? Perhaps they're inventing memory, developing a sense of time in all its passing and perdurance: the hurt received back then versus the remedy just now delivered; what you thought was there versus what actually is there, and so on.

I quoted this from Scurati once before:

'Here in the zone of contact, the cause does not precede the effect. Here the chronological order doesn't matter. Here the cause of what has been done not only still has to be discovered but actually does not yet exist.'
(Antonio Scurati: Il sopravissuto)

This variant comes from Wu Ming:

'We are on the summit of time, where the answer precedes the question, the effect precedes the cause, death precedes birth.

'You had to climb this hill to understand the journey you had taken.'
(Wu Ming: Manituana)

But time is also rhythm.

Lazzarato describes (in Videofilosofia) how Bergson distinguishes between, on the one hand, time as perceived by the senses and, on the other, time as conceived by the intellect. There is more 'reality' in sensation, according to Bergson, and that 'surplus' of reality in perception is to be sought, according to Nietzsche, within the body. He then traces the whole thing back to an Aristotelian sense of time extensively measuring the movement that is in Nature (in other words a cosmology) versus a neo-Platonic view of time as intension, as measuring out the movement of the soul.

In Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno the breathing of Zeno's dying father has a fretful quality which Zeno imitates 'almost unconsciously', before affording himself pauses which he hopes to pass on to his patient. The rhythm of the father's dying breaths seems to become part of the room 'from that point and for a long, long time after that.' In fact what Svevo seems to be describing here is the sort of entrainment whereby memory develops as a sort of felt persistence.

In a related passage Zeno plays the violin:

'Even the lowest sort of being, once he knows what three, four and six note figures are, knows how to pass between them with the same rhythmical exactness as his eye knows how to pass from one set of notes to the next. With me, though, once I've played one of these figures, it sticks to me and will not let me go again, so that it gets mixed up with the figure following and deforms it. In order to put the notes in the right place I have to mark time both with my feet and with my head, and so much for nonchalance, for serenity, so much for music. Music that comes from an organism that's in balance both is itself the time that it both creates and exhausts.'
(Svevo: La coscienza di Zeno)

And here, finally, for good measure, are some quotations from Sapienza in Onda, the Rome section of the Anomalous Wave, 18 March 2009:

'We have entered a new era. Today we can say this unambiguously, without prevarication. The recession is concrete reality: the government doesn't doubt it: police against the students, police against dissenters, police and baton charges against those who won't pay for this crisis!

'The Wave isn't dead. The Wave isn't some memory of youth. The Wave is alive and it doesn't intend to stop. The Wave causes fear.'

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Christianity as a Narrative of Progress

'... in the Christian religious tradition there are two grand narratives: the story of Salvation, which tells of the shining path taken by man returning to God, and the story of the Fall, which instead narrates the dark business of the estrangement between creature and creator which followed Original Sin. Christianity in its pre-modern form developed the latter almost obsessively ... the modern version, by contrast, has insisted mainly upon the former, associating it with the layman's idea of progress: thus all would turn out for the best thanks to Science and Technology, which would resolve the problems of humanity, eliminating suffering and injustice from the face of the earth.

'Well I believe that now might be the time to go back and place more weight upon the story of the Fall.'
(Antonio Scurati: Il sopravissuto)

A Third View of Obfuscation

'I may not be able to love but I force myself to pretend to believe in it ... For the future I don't have the slightest hope but I constrain myself to disseminate faith in that future, projecting it like a trompe l'oeil onto the pealing plaster of the school hall. I don't have dreams, those I had have fallen from me ... and yet I feel I have a duty to nourish those of young people [...] I am hard with myself and soft with them. From them I expect everything, and for them everything good; of myself I don't expect anything any more. I feel pity for everyone except for my own person. For myself I reserve a more perverse sentiment and a punishment that's more subtle: I know that I am not happy, and I blame myself for that, and I condemn myself, by way of retaliation, to pretend that I am.'
(Antonio Scurati: Il sopravissuto)

Two Views of Obfuscation

‘One must always explain the matter clearly to an adversary. Only then can you be sure that you understand it better than he does.’
(Svevo: La coscienza di Zeno)

‘They never tell you why they are doing anything. That way they don’t find out that they don’t know themselves.’
(Chandler: The Long Goodbye)

The Artist as Serial Killer

The story of Pygmalion is a gloss by an optimist upon what gets done by artists. So in this story there's no murder. Having created her out of ivory, the artist falls in love with Galatea. After she is brought to life by Aphrodite she goes on to bear him a son.

Or perhaps you should 'murder your darlings'. This was Q's advice (Arthur Quiller Couch: On the Art of Writing, 1914) though it's been claimed on behalf of others. The context is what Q calls 'purchased ornamentation'. The ones you fall in love with are the worst. The artist must be rigorously unsentimental about such things and always chuck out what is dross.

Then there's Beckett's onwards and upwards version, likewise fairly terse: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better,' which comes from Worstward Ho. Do it better next time, if you can: a story of making progress.

So 'fail better' towards some end? Which is where progress always leads us. Not necessarily. The same phrase was recently used, unacknowledged, as the title for a piece by Zadie Smith on writers and readers in The Guardian. Though she does quote Adam Zagajewski: a story of Hunt the self. But what exactly is the self? 'It likes to dress up, to masquerade':

'Neither custom officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.'
(Adam Zagajewski, from The Self)

'To me,' Smith comments:

'writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation - as Zagajewski suggests - is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience.'
(Writing as Self Betrayal, from Fail Better)

But unfortunately there's a kind of prurient chastity about this sort of thing. The self plays Peekaboo. At the point of total disclosure time would stop. Whereupon the self would presumably stand there motionless and naked like the girls at the Windmill Theatre. Yet time doesn't stop like that. Rather it avoids such indecent truth because if time really were to seize up there would be no more artistic production, no more 'analysis' in Lacan's terms. Instead time just carries on regardless like the Ford or Fiat production lines in 60s capitalism. And in that case doesn't writing (don't all the arts indeed) become a sort of all encompassing narcissism (a kind of personal subsumption by each artist) for ever holding the floor and yet never quite reaching the end? I'd tell you everything about myself, is what's implied by this conception, except that isn't possible. Which also leaves the arts without any social dimensions. Or, like Mobius the Stripper in Josipovici's titular apothegm, a surface with only one side. (In Josipovici's split screen story Mobius reveals himself psychologically across the top half of each page. Eventually he kills himself, leaving the final top half blank. Conversely it is only during the remainder of that page that a writer who has been struggling to engage with what he's doing across each lower half can now begin writing fluently.)

Obviously there's a connection here with Ovid. Like Zagajewski's quoted poem, Ovid's telling of the Narcissus myth is a sort of parable of nominalism (how the word for the thing and the thing itself become detached from one another) and maybe too of phenomenalism: how the things of the world become bundles of sensory inputs. Echo loves Narcissus but she can only echo him, and so she pines away; she leaves behind only her voice. Narcissus loves the image of himself, and ends up suicidal.

But with this difference, that implicate in this version is the social dimension. Without a sense of herself, in other words, Echo is nothing; but without a sense of other people, Narcissus is also doomed.


And yet 'each man kills the thing he loves,' according to Oscar Wilde. So the impulse towards murder isn't just about moving on or about failing better despite what's been said above. Nor yet is it about something that's postponed through endless self revelation or about bringing all that to an end.

It's implicit in Catullus, for example:

Odi et amo, quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and love. Perhaps you ask how I can do this.
I don't know, but I feel it happen and I'm crucified.
(Carmen 85)

Here a chiasmus structure binds together exteriority and interiority, positive and negative, empathy and exclusion ('hate and love' versus 'feel it [...] and am crucified') into a single unit, a completed conceptual object full of potential for action but without the action itself.

But whereas Catullus creates an object kept suspended in the present, Rodchenko describes an inflection of this, an object which is receding into the past or from which he himself is moving forward into the future: The lingering last hopes of love are destroyed, and I leave the house of dead truth'. This is history conceived of as a sort of numinous object: 'The crushing of all -isms in painting was for me the beginning of my resurrection,' was how he had also put it. It's something that results from some sort of course of action, that's equipped with both an outside and an inside (like the inclusion and exclusion in Catullus) even though it's since been emptied of its potential and is thus described as 'useless', and with a structure that had been sketched out through time rather as a building is stretched out in space but which now obtrudes, albeit briefly, into the present:

'When I look at the number of paintings I have painted I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them. There are over 10 years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose.'
(Alexandr Rodchenko, in Novyi Lef, no 6, 1927)

The filaments of Kafka's Odradek, another inflection, in Die Sorge des Hausvaters, The Cares of a Family Man, stretch out not only through time but also in space. For Kafka, though, it's the narrator who is history, exceeded by his conception, some 'useless' thing or creature, some 'strange bobbin whose true form we will never know, still less the purpose of its existence' but which moves nonetheless in a contrary direction to that of Rodchenko's church, out of the past, through the present and so on into the future, like the progress of DNA, as Kafka contemplates his own extinction with disquiet.

Girolamo De Michele writes of it thus:

'It exists but it doesn't have any function; it has a form, and yet it is formless. It is suspended in an intermediate dimension, as though halfway between some useless object that has lost all function and an object that's going to be reused for purposes that are both new and unexpected.'
(Girolamo De Michele: New Italian Epic e allegoria, in Carmilla)

And Kafka himself writes as follows:

'I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children's children? He does no harm to anyone that I can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I do find almost painful.'
(Kafka: Die Sorge des Hausvaters, The Cares of a Family Man)

Of course, an object that's 'lost all function' has become entirely external in how it is perceived. Its pointlessness excludes us or we have turned away from what's within. However, it is still an object, something that's been created, retaining full interiority nonetheless. Conversely the object 'that's going to be used for purposes that are both new and unexpected' (the example De Michele himself comes up with is the McGuffin, the television protagonist of Wu Ming's 54) may have no content as such (the McGuffin lost its innards). However, it can still offer possibility, the possibility of approach and entering into, of filling with new content, thereby remaining an object. Even the surprise of disappointment is on offer:

'When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me, so of course I was surprised.'
(Wittgenstein: Culture and Value)

Or that which Duchamp offers in what Lazzarato calls the 'null set' of the readymade, which also remains an object, to which there's nothing added except the artist's choice.


In Hi/story, I wrote of time as extension (the winding road, the hands of the clock, how many hours have gone by) against time as intension: of how it feels to be here now, to be doing these things and to have these affiliations. The mechanisation of time is, in many ways, the beginning of its failure as a whole. Indeed the Taylorised factory may have begun along with the clock, whose hands complete and re-complete their frictionless journeys endlessly, over and over, without accumulation or result.

When Q advises murder it's in the service of one's craft, in the pursuit of some single and excellent object: excellence as a remainder. For Beckett that pursuit is in the plural, of better and better objects: steady progress up a hill. But for Zadie Smith it's the production line itself that really counts: an endless succession of essentially fungible manufactures, where time is never switched off.

In Carmen 85 the 'object' Catullus creates is fully formed, but all movement is in potential. That is, it has no extension, being virtually pure intension, pure affiliation. Rodchenko's 10 years' production, on the other hand, is his own artistic practice perceived as a sort of perdurance: thingness dividing itself into its various temporal parts as the world gets divided even as we travel along the road, through different towns and villages, watchful of the scenery. Whilst his 'useless ... church' is a sort of endurance: a sense of the temporal wholeness of the world as it continues, along with us. So that any decisive movement there is, whatever distance he sets, is not of time but of the attention and of purpose: he moves forwards, leaving his 'church' behind as a sort of detritus. Whereas Kafka privileges the object over the human, endurance over perdurance. So that whilst Humanity is maintained through successive generations the continuance of Odradek, by contrast, is as an entity that is permanently single, undivided.

In other words time, as a concept at least, persists.


And yet sometimes something happens that's quite different, that finally cuts through time. In Antonio Scurati's Il sopravissuto, a boy walks into the gymnasium of his school. He's meant to be taking his viva. Instead, in a destructively creative act (Scurati is explicit about 'the basis of its analogy with the work of art') he shoots dead seven teachers. Only one is left behind: the 'survivor' of the title.

So why exactly does he do it?

One theory (that of the criminologist, Dr Salini) is that the 'serial killer' works in a circle, that he selects 'trophies' (aspects of the loved one reflected in the victim), constantly narrowing in a deferred or indirect way the gap between 'the original' (the one that's loved and hated) and 'its similar', who's the victim, until Browne's 'mortal right lined circle must conclude and shut up all.' Until, that is, the circle reaches its end (or its beginning) 'either with the capture of the murderer or with the death of the loved one'.

Significantly, Salini delivers this explanation within the gym itself, where it's framed by an obscurity, by a lack of differentiation that's on the one hand both external and geographical ('[O]utside the gym ... in whatever direction one turned, North, South, East or West, one saw only accumulations of water vapour in suspension') and on the other both internal and temporal: 'Everything in the gym, the walls, the furnishings, the men, was pasted together out of blind materiality. One was in the instant prior to the creation of a universe that was endlessly deferred.'

So time has stopped. At least for now.

'We are living,' as the text announces later, 'through a back-to-front creation.' A more social situation than had been described within the gym, and one in which, as the survivor puts it, the killer (or the artist):

'wants it to be us that finds the reason for what he did, the reason not even he can understand. We and he are complementary moves within the same debate. In killing he has put the question. In living we have been asked to come up with the response. We have been called upon to complete that which he has begun [...] This is what he wants from you: he wants you to be the one that closes up the circle [...]

'Don't pay any attention to common sense. Here in the zone of contact, the cause does not precede the effect. Here the chronological order doesn't matter. Here the cause of what has been done not only still has to be discovered but actually does not yet exist.'
(Antonio Scurati: Il sopravissuto)

Almost as though reprising Michaelangelo's painting of the Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the killer had even pointed his finger out towards the survivor ('It wasn't an act of aggression, rather it was an election') during the very moment of the killings. But with this difference, that in Scurati's version of what happens Andrea Marescalchi has to step forward from the crowd through the fact of his survival, through his (negative) selection by the killer, whereas the killer himself, Vitaliano Caccia, seems to recede from view altogether, just one amongst a crowd of disaffected youths, 'the pointed end of the arrow'. Indeed he has acted, according to the Public Prosecutor, having been 'chosen from within by a group of his own age to complete a death mission', 'a kind of collective mandate set by a group of his peers.'